Ekev takes place in the interlude just before the nation of Israel is about to enter the land of Canaan and take possession of it. The community is gathered before Moses, who is preparing them for this momentous, highly anticipated event.
The entire parasha is in the voice of Moses, speaking in the first person. Though he is making profound statements and issuing momentous exhortations, it has a personal and even a slightly intimate tone, as he recalls some of what he and his people have gone through together to get to this crossroad. In particular, he revisits his epic experience ascending the mountain to receive the tablets from God, staying 40 days and 40 nights, without food or drink, only to have to rush back down the mountain, blazing with fire, in order to handle the crisis of the golden calf. He reminds the community that he had to prostrate himself for another 40 days and nights to persuade God not to destroy them, and that God’s lenience comes with clear requirements. They must redeem themselves with better behavior and better attitude in three ways : they must acknowledge that they are sustained by God, by expressing gratitude for their food; they must be sensitivite to strangers by befriending them, and they must demonstrate their love of God by keeping his laws, rules and commandments. The practice of the first requirement is the Birkat Ha Mazon, the grace said after the meal. According to the food scholar Margaret Visser, the prayer said before the meal is a benediction and the prayer said after the meal, is a grace, which means thanksgiving, as in “grateful” or “gracias”. ,Many cultures have a benediction but fewer cultures have a grace as well. Ours comes from this incident.
Earlier in the service today we recited the “ve-yehavta”, which is taken from Ekev. It is a set of instructions of how to fulfill the third requirement, to love God by keeping his commandments. The ‘ve-yehavta’ is a composite of instructions Moses gives throughout Ekev concerning how to love God, but not lifted intact from any one part of Ekev. Getting a sense of the scene in which these instructions were delivered makes the prayer a bit more dramatic for me, and the awareness that this is part of how Israel makes amends for the Golden Calf sharpens my attention.. It’s easy to get lulled by the melodic chanting of the veyhavta, but this is a serious matter, and not to be taken lightly.
The life that Moses presents to the Israelites once they conquer the land is almost ideal. The land is abundant with fruits, grains, vegetables, oil and other foods that nearly raise themselves, water arriving on cue without much human effort, herds grazing and reproducing, and bees buzzing as they produce their honey. And their victory is assured, according to Moses, not because of their virtue or valour, but because the wickedness of the enemy has motivated God to dispossess them. This is something to bear in mind, not to be tempted by the ways of the enemy, especially their idol worship.
The promise of this new life after the taxing transition in the desert and the humiliating years of slavery gives Ekev an uplifting and even buoyant feeling, as if they are all about to cross the finishing line of a marathon, but within that there is powerful ethical gravity and spiritual guidance. Don’t let success go to your head, remember it’s often due to external factors such as a merciful God or an incompetent enemy; don’t let the good times erase the memory of what it’s like to suffer so that you remain sensitive to the suffering of others, especially strangers in your midst—in fact the commandment to love the stranger is repeated 36 times in the Torah, more than many other better known commandments; however easy or affluent life becomes, remember that an easy lifestyle doesn’t eliminate the importance of religious discipline and spiritual practice—think about your religious commitments—fulfill the commandments,, transmit them to the next generation. Being a holy people is an ongoing, never ending state of conscious practice. , there is no coasting.
There’s much more to this parashah, which I’ve tried to summarize, and it is well worth reading from start to finish. However, I’d like to focus on something seemingly small about the parashah, and that is its name, Ekev.
The last time I heard Ekev was at the Second Kolel Kallah, held at Geneva Park, in the days before Camp George existed. That was back in the 90s and the reason I haven’t heard it since is that the Canadian summer rhythm often means seldom going to services in July or August. This is one more reason that today’s service is a happy echo for me, a rare chance to study Torah in the summer. The Kolel Kallah was another opportunity. As some of you know, Kolel was the adult education centre founded and run by our Rabbi before she started City Shul. For 10 summers it offered a four-day intensive study retreat called Kallah, and there one could learn with any number of wonderful Rabbis and teachers. I attended the first three Kallote and was chair person of the third one. It brought back the feeling of immersion in Jewish life that I first experienced the summer I went to Torah Corps, the Reform Movement’s study camp for teens, which was truly a life-changing event for me. The summer everyone else was talking about Woodstock and walking on the moon, I was studying Amos, reading from the Torah, speaking Hebrew every day, and adding substance to my Jewish identity. If I had to do it all over again, I would still take Torah Corps over Woodstock.
The Darshan at the second Kolel Kallah was Rabbi Gunther Plaut, of blessed memory,. Rabbi Plaut was at that time the Emeritus Rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple, and a leading figure in Canadian Jewish Life as a commentator, human rights activist, author, and as the primary commentator of the UAHC edition of Torah. In fact, I used my copy of that Commentary , which I purchased the year it was released, to prepare this Devar Torah. He told us that when he went to study Ekev that week, he was stopped in his tracks by the very name of the parasha, the word Ekev. It had never struck him so forcefully before that Ekev comes from the word for “the heel”, as does the name of our patriarch, Ya’akov. He was named for that part of the body because when he emerged from the womb, he was holding onto the heel of his twin brother Esau.
Remembering Rabbi Plaut’s emphasis on the word heel, as part of Ya’akov’s name, led me to think about how his name changes to Israel. After that he becomes the father of Joseph, who goes down to Egypt, and many generations and episodes later, the Israelites are about to emerge from the wilderness in a parasha called Ekev. The framing by the word heel is striking, it is a heel to heel journey. What I chiefly remember from Rabbi Plaut’s devar Torah that day is that even a single word of a parasha can be enough to stimulate your thoughts and demand your attention when studying Torah.
Remembering this, I considered what my other associations to the word for heel and the name Ya’akov were, and it led me to think of one of the most moving and awe-inspiring episodes in the Torah, the parasha V’yetze. Ya’akov goes to sleep and has a dream in which angels are going up and down a staircase to the sky, and God appears and tells him he will make him the progenitor of a great nation. When he awakens Ya’akov utters these immortal words:
Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it.
Let me put Ya’akov’s realization another way. He thought that God was absent when in fact, God was present. He was simply wrong concerning God’s whereabouts. He somehow managed to miss that God was around, and settled down for a good night’s sleep.
When he realized God in fact was there, he was truly and permanently transformed by the recognition of his own error. And after that he was never the same again. So being wrong was the first step to being transformed into Israel.
Keeping that error in mind, think back to Ekev. In this parasha we revisit one of the biggest errors ever made by the descendents of Ya’kov—renamed Israel-- The error of the Golden Calf. What’ s remarkable is that they make the exact reverse error of Ya’akov. Whereas Ya’akov thought that God was not there when in fact God was present, the Israelites think that God is present in the form of their Golden Calf when in fact God was completely absent from that hunk of metal, and in no way contained by that idol. In contrast to Ya’akov’s words” Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it”, the Israelites, had they been able to formulate their error would have said, “Surely God is absent from this Bovine Statue and we should have known it.”
Either way, it might seem that Jews are prone to misplacing God. No wonder one of our names for God is “Ha Makom”-the place. But my interest here is not in God’s location, but in our errors. In some ways, the Five Books of Moses can be seen as one long narrative of errors. Surely we can agree that we get more things wrong than we get right. Adam and Eve get us off to the wrong start, Isaac blesses the wrong son; Ya’akov marries the wrong wife; Aaron’s sons offer the wrong sacrifice; ten of the twelve scouts Moses sends to Canaan try to offer the wrong information—there are many different kinds of errors, significant and trivial, ethical and practical, ritual and personal.
My sensitivity to this theme is heightened by reading a wonderful book called Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. The author, Kathryn Schulz, calls herself a wrongologist and examines many different aspects of the ways we err and the ways in which we deal with being wrong. She also considers how being wrong makes us feel and how agonizingly difficult it can be to realize we are wrong and how urgently we need to restore our sense of self when we are in the zone of error. Humans really find it hard to be wrong even though we can’t avoid it.
Judaism devotes our most solemn holiday of the year to dealing with this. The fact that the illustration on the cover of Kathryn Shulz’s book is an archery target, with an arrow that doesn’t pierce the bulls eye, but is stuck in the “O” of the word “Wrong” suggests an awareness of this, as the word “cheit” , which means sin, and we repeat so many times in the “al cheit” on Yom Kippur, is a term from archery which means to miss the mark.
Being Wrong looks at error on an individual and a communal level. There are some fabulous examples of communities that really blew it, including the nation of Switzerland, who didn’t give the vote to women until 1971, or the hundreds of thousands of Millerites, a movement of Christians who so fervently believed that the judgement day and end of the world would be October 22 1844 that they didn’t even plant their fields that year knowing they would not need food. And from Jewish history Schulz draws the example of , the zealots, the sect on Massada that slaughtered its members rather than surrender to the Romans. Her point is not to prove that the zealots were wrong to resist the Romans, but to look at their absolute certainty that they were right and that murder was justified because of this certainty. It’s the single minded insistence on being absolutely right and the unwillingness to entertain the possibility of being wrong that characterizes extremism, and ultimately, leads to even more serious error. It’s sobering to consider that Judaism gave the term zealotry to the world.
In Ekev, God tells Moses that the Israelites as a stiff-necked people, meaning that they were resistant to accepting God, and prone to slipping back to slavish, idolatrous ways. Zealotry is goes beyond stiff necked-ness to absolute paralysis. Moses exhorts his people to stiffen their necks no more. What would it mean to be a flexible-necked people? This is a question that’s still worth reflecting on. In part, perhaps, it would mean to be able to relax our thinking just enough to ask ourselves if we might be wrong—whether it is about where God is located, or whether we can tackle the Canaanites even though they look like giants. And how are we to recognize when we are being stiff-necked? Maybe one symptom is a powerful conviction that we are right—feeling this sensation might be just the moment to pause and review, to make sure that we aren’t swept away by certainty.
In the spirit of a parashah named for the heel, and in preparation for the Days of Awe looming soon ahead when we will be confronting our Cheits, let’s resolve to be on our toes about our own sense of being right, and learn to take being wrong in our stride.